In his first season since transferring from Ball State, wide receiver Damon Hazelton Jr. led the Virginia Tech football team in catches, receiving yards and touchdown catches and matched a school record for touchdown receptions by a first-year player.
But you would have a difficult time getting the Baltimore native and Franklin graduate to brag even a little bit about his performance from this past fall.
“I think it was OK,” he said Monday. “I think there’s always room for improvement. I think I can always get better. There are definitely little things in every game that I look back on afterward and can see on film, just seeing little things that I could have done differently that will maybe put me in a better position. I don’t think I’m ever going to have a season where I look back and am like, ‘That was the perfect season.’ I just don’t think that will happen. I always feel like I can do more and be better at all times. That’s why I think it was OK.”
Hakeem Butler, a redshirt junior receiver at Iowa State, ranks second in the Football Bowl Subdivision with a 22.1 yards-per-catch average, and his 6-foot-6, 219-pound frame has attracted attention from NFL draft experts.
The 6-foot-2, 222-pound redshirt sophomore paced the Hokies (6-7) with 51 catches for 802 yards and eight scores, tying wide receiver Ricky Hall’s program mark. He was named to the All-Atlantic Coast Conference second team and had six receptions for 57 yards in the team’s 35-31 loss to Cincinnati in the Military Bowl at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis on Dec. 31.
“He’s done a good job of just understanding how we value practice and what he needs to do to continue to make himself better,” Virginia Tech wide receivers coach Holmon Wiggins said in a statement. “He’s probably one of the most mature kids that I’ve been around. Sometimes I lose sight that he is a sophomore. So, all of last year, I had to remind myself that he’s in his second year of college, but the kid is motivated, self-driven, knows what he wants, is a football junkie.”
Hazelton was especially valuable as a reliable safety valve for redshirt junior quarterback Ryan Willis.
“He’s a playmaker,” Willis said of Hazelton. “He’s one of those guys that on third-and-10, I’m going to trust him to catch the ball. He’s just an all-around great player, and it doesn’t hurt to have a great player on the team. He’s been my go-to target for the majority of the year, and I expect him to be my go-to next year also.”
The bond between receiver and quarterback began before the 2017 season when Hazelton and Willis transferred from Ball State and Kansas, respectively. Per NCAA rules, the duo sat out the year but developed a sense of cohesion as members of the scout team that tested the first- and second-team defense.
“I think it was just one of those things where I don’t know how it worked — maybe it was God — but we were fortunate enough to be in that position where we both sat, we both had to play on the ‘look’ squad, and we kind of just clicked,” Hazelton said.
Willis said he and Hazelton “tore” into the starting defense.
“I would throw to Damon on every single play every day,” he said. “So my chemistry with him has been crazy. Our nonverbal communication, I can kind of just look at him, and we would be on the same page. I know him that well as a player, which is pretty cool.”
The two are also roommates in an off-campus apartment. Willis has learned some dance moves from Hazelton, who spent a week last summer in Willis’ hometown near Kansas City fishing for crappie, going kayaking and eating barbecue.
Willis noted that Hazelton has covered his bedroom walls with notecards of inspirational quotes, Bible verses and words of encouragement.
“Just so I can make sure that I’m sharp and try to stay on myself and make sure that I stay focused,” Hazelton said of his notecard habit. “It’s just literally a reminder every day — when I walk into my room, when I wake up, when I’m in my room just to chill and relax — a visual reminder. I’m a visual guy.”
Hazelton’s success is no surprise to Franklin coach Anthony Burgos, who watched the receiver help the Indians capture the Baltimore County championship and make an appearance in the first round of the regional playoffs in 2015. Burgos was instrumental in moving Hazelton from his running back position at Loyola Blakefield to wide receiver.
“We’re always looking at a kid and asking, ‘What’s his potential in college?’ ” Burgos said. “His body frame wasn’t necessarily a running back’s body frame. He’s long, and if you’re a running back, that’s probably not the greatest thing to have, to be a long guy like that. It just made sense to play wide receiver, especially when we knew that would be the position he would ultimately play in college.”
Growing up in Baltimore fortified Hazelton’s resolve, which he demonstrated this past season when he cut short his recovery time from offseason hip surgery, returned to Virginia Tech in the preseason and played in all 13 games.
“Growing up in Baltimore definitely taught me a lot about adversity and perseverance and becoming mentally tough and mentally strong because you have to be,” he said. “Living in a city like that is tough to do. So I definitely had to learn that at a young age, and that’s something I definitely did learn.”
Willis projected that Hazelton will easily make the leap to the NFL, which requires players to be three years out of high school before they can turn pro. Hazelton could declare for the draft this month, but is on pace to graduate next fall with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies.
Hazelton, who has trained with New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. as clients of trainer Jamal Liggin, acknowledged that he has considered joining Beckham.
“That’s a dream of mine since I was a kid,” he said. “That’s definitely something I want to do, and — God willing — I know that I can do that. Not just play in it, but to go in there and make an impact. That’s something that’s in the back of my mind, but I graduate next fall and getting my degree is something that’s important to me as well. So I’ll worry about the NFL when that time comes. I think that will all take care of itself.”
Hazelton said his top priority in the offseason is working on all aspects of his game to be a consistent force for the Hokies. Getting to this stage in his life is one thing he does not take for granted.
“It does seem surreal in the sense of knowing that I play for certain things and I went out and worked and I was praying for certain things to happen, and I can just remember how it felt,” he said. “I just wanted to be in the position that I’m in now, and God answered my prayers.”